The so-called Summer of Trump has elevated a number of longstanding beefs into proper blood feuds: the Republican establishment against the conservative grassroots, for example, or the party’s nativist constituency against its globalist elites. Until Scott Walker’s withdrawal from the race on Monday, it was possible to look at one of those feuds—the tension between political scientists and the political press over what campaign developments are really worth our attention—and conclude that it was so nasty only because the stakes were so small.
The debate has long been over a question neatly crystallized in the title of Thomas M. Holbrook’s 1996 book Do Campaigns Matter? This is an open debate within the academy, but there is effective unanimity among political scientists that the press regularly exaggerate the extent to which campaigns do matter, and tend to look in the wrong places when they do. The political press mistake short-term blips like poll surges as evidence of durable changes, they argue. In so doing, journalists dangerously disregard structural factors that tend to bestow upon presidential elections a familiar architecture even as context shifts and the characters who inhabit them change every four years.
During the Summer of Trump, both sides played their roles perfectly. Journalists saw Trump’s poll numbers rise and started gaming out the prospects that he could end up the Republican nominee, or playing kingmaker at a brokered convention. Political scientists, along with sympathetic “data journalists” at places like FiveThirtyEight and Vox, warned against irrational exuberance, invoking cautionary tales from 2011: episodes in which Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry had each been an ephemeral front-runner only to collapse weeks later. “Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge,” Nate Cohn of the New York Times blog The Upshot wrote on July 18, dutifully summarizing the academic literature about those patterns. “Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.”
Nearly nine weeks later, the Trump bubble has yet to burst, and it’s fair for journalists to see the academics as spoilsports intent on ruining one of the most bizarrely unpredictable political seasons the country has seen in a while. Trump has remained atop the polls, and seems able to dominate hour-to-hour media coverage in a way without obvious precedent in American electoral politics. Yet, if one looks to the indicators that political scientists have isolated as predictors to the past nominees—like endorsements from elected officials and other party insiders—Trump remains as improbable a nominee as he was the day he started. “It’s far, far harder for candidates like him to appeal to party elites—who play an important role in helping determine who will win the nomination,” Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote in an early July post headlined “Trump is surging in the polls. Here’s why he won’t win.”
Some of these empirically-minded Trump skeptics have responded to his longevity with a shift from denialism to allegations of self-dealing. In late August, George Washington University professor John Sides, for instance, weighed in at the Washington Post with a post titled “Why does Trump remain atop the polls? You can still blame the media.” Sides further described the primary-season pattern of “discovery-scrutiny-decline” that Cohn argued made Trump’s collapse inevitable. Three weeks later, Sides was back with a post titled “Can we stop blaming the media for Donald Trump? Nope. Not at all.”
Trump’s surprise mid-June entry into the race displaced Walker as front-runner, in both Iowa and national polls, and the New Yorker’s durable strength exerted a downward pressure that ultimately forced Walker from the race. (Certainly Ben Carson’s surprising appeal —and the Wisconsin governor’s own inability to constructively distinguish himself in the field—played a part, too, in keeping Walker out of the news and demoralizing his donors.) There may not yet be a classic pattern to this decline, but it’s hard not to see Trump’s emergence and longevity as the most direct culprit for the abrupt end to Walker’s once promising candidacy.
Indeed, political-science models are so focussed on looking for factors that directly shape final outcomes—like who wins an election, or, in this case, a party nomination—that they too aggressively discount all the ways that campaign dynamics affect those outcomes indirectly, or parts of the process not easily quantified. Trump may not be any more likely to become the Republican nominee than he was when he became a candidate, or at the point a month later when Cohn predicted that his “support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts.” But it is hard to argue that Trump’s candidacy hasn’t mattered.
It certainly mattered to Walker, who, in late March, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver predicted would be most likely to win the Republican nomination. Silver gave him a 26 percent chance of winning the primaries—“totally subjective odds” informed by the fact that Walker looked like a viable consensus candidate who could transcend party factions and find himself with access to the type of elites that in past elections have served to anoint nominees.
Even if Trump eventually declines, the way he has thus far run his campaign, squeezing out those who had intended to run as tribunes of conservative anger against the Washington political class, will leave a permanent impression on the field. Walker’s departure at Trump’s hands opens up space that other candidates will try to fill, adjusting their strategies and tactics to do so. Whoever wins the nomination is likely to get there on a different path—with a different coalition, support from different donors, interest groups, and elites—than he or she would have done had Trump never entered the race, or Walker not gotten out of it. Campaigns don’t have to succeed to matter.